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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Hustlers and Wolves

A year ago this time I was leading the cheers for David Russell's Silver Linings Playbook.

This year, I want to say clear as day that David Russell's American Hustle is a giant snow job of a good movie, and I cannot believe critics are falling for the hustle,

I cared about the characters in Silver Linings Playbook.  It was old-fashioned at its heart and sweet at its core, and very well acted.

I didn't care about a thing in American Hustle,  Christian Bale plays a two bit hustler whom I don't care about.  He runs a con with an FBI agent played by Bradley Cooper, whom I don't care about.  All the movie does is remind me constantly. of films like The Sting or Catch Me If You Can that do it better.

There is the occasional pleasure.  De Niro is good and has a great moment.  Amy Adams is brilliant but too little seen.  But mostly, I was bored early and often.

If you're looking for a cinematic snow job this winter, The Wolf of Wall Street would be your better bet.

From the coming attraction there were hopes this would be another Goodfellas, an earlier Scorcese film that us one of the best American films of recent decades. And by that standard, Wolf of Wall Street disappoints.  By most other standards It is a darn fine piece of work.

It is the mostly true story of Jordan Belfort, who founded the serious sounding brokerage firm of Stratton Oakmont that specialized in "selling garbage to garbage men," persuading the middle class -- very very persuasively -- to invest in penny stocks, two bit companies with much better chances of becoming half pint runts. This was a very lucrative if not entirely legal business that made Belfort very wealthy, and the Wolf of Wall Street delights in the bacchanalia that resulted, at least until Belfort was imprisoned on a variety of fraud charges.

The movie is long, around three hours long.  When so many movies today are special effects spectaculars full of fast cut action or fast cut just about anything, this is unusually rare.  The last movie I can consciously remember being so leisurely scene by scene was a Romanian art movie that seemed almost a parody of leisurely art movies.  Before that, Jonathan Demme's remake of Manchurian Candidate was a movie where every scene dragged on a beat too long, an extra boring beat too long.  And here, these long scenes can be seen as a celebration of decadence and excess and tawdriness and sexism and so much else we aren't supposed to celebrate.

Yet I found the scenes in Wolf of Wall Street to be tightly edited, taut, and compelling.  For all their length, Scorcese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker were finding the pulse of the scene, letting it play out in its own time and rhythm.  Matthew McConaughey's slightly more veteran broker teaching Leonardo DiCaprio's newbie broker the ropes at a 30 martini lunch.  Jordan Belfort trying to romance the stone of a cold FBI agent on a luxurious yacht. Most memorably a scene at a pay phone in a country club that turns into sardonic slapstick that in term becomes almost Grand Guignol.  Yeah, some of the scenes could have been a little tighter.  A going away speech given at Stratton Oakmont is one. But on balance I was enjoying the slow building skill of the film.

That said, it could still have lost a half hour in its final hour.  We aren't watching this because we care about Jordan Belfort's wife and kids, and the resolution of that plot arc could have been left on the cutting room floor.

I can't criticize the movie for its excess.  It is what is is; these are things that pretty much happened.  I can't fault the film for not showing the victims. It isn't about them, and a movie about selling "garbage to garbage men," you can't fill in just a little where the money for the bacchanalia is coming from?

Scorcese can be up and down,  Goodfellas great, Hugo I walked out of and other of his movies I should have.  But this is a major canon addition for a major figure in American cinema and should be seen. iPad

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